The Columnist

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If I were to say that the arrival of big business has done a lot for sport, I’m sure many big businessmen would nod their chins and agree. Yes, they’d say, good old sports sponsorship!

I can’t see it myself. Every time I see a top motor racing star festooned in logos, or find that some traditional football trophy has been renamed the International Pharmaceutical Side-Effects Trophy, I don’t overflow with warmth towards the drug world. If I’m watching Arsenal play Liverpool on television, and the only clue to which team is which is the name on their shirts, I’m not best pleased to find that one team appears to be called, say, Mitsubishi, and the other JVC.

So if I were to rephrase it, and say that business and sport have a thriving relationship with each other, would those chins still nod? Yes, they would. The big businessmen would say – ah, corporate hospitality! Where would sport be without it?
Worse off, financially, of course, but perhaps better off, from a sporting point of view. Those white marquees housing the friends and guests of big business can certainly be good for business, but the chaps in the marquees, like corporate patrons of the opera, don’t always remember to emerge in time to watch the sport.

So if I were to make one final attempt to say what I mean, and utter the opinion that sport has benefited a lot from big business, because a lot of businessmen indulge in it, would the chins still nod?

I’m not sure they would. They might be a bit puzzled. ’We’re not sure why sport should thrive on the presence of businessmen on the field of play,’ they might say. ’Jogging, do you mean? Gym work? Cricket match against another firm?’

No, I’m talking about spreading the gospel. How else are people going to see new games played than by seeing businessmen and women playing them? On television, of course, but TV tends to preach to the converted, and seldom risks anything new. Believe it or not, the way that a lot of games spread is through overseas propagation by exiled business people. A man gets posted abroad for a few years, far from his native cricket pitch or baseball park, and what does he do? He looks round for a few kindred souls just to throw a ball around, and before you know where you are, they’ve formed a team. Then they look for another expatriate team to play against…

I once saw a rugby game in Lima, Peru. Lima rugby club was playing its annual fixture against Quito rugby club from Ecuador. They were playing two games in 24 hours because, as the Quito captain explained to me, if you’ve come hundreds of miles for one game, you might as well have two.

‘It should be an interesting game,’ he said, ‘ because Quito is 10,000 feet above sea level and Lima is at sea level. That means we are quite used to oxygen deprivation, so when we encounter the rich air at sea level we should run and run.’

Such was not quite the case. I turned out that the men of Quito were so used to having a quick rest after any exertion that they went on doing so out of habit. But what was interesting was that, although both teams were largely made up of expats – Welsh, English, one or two Antipodeans – there was a scattering of South Americans on both sides. Some of them couldn’t speak English. So the game had to be played in Spanish.
‘All right, Number 8!’ cried one of the wings, about to throw in, using one of those code numbers so beloved of rugby players.

‘Que?’ came a voice from the line-out.

‘Oh, sorry – ocho!’ came the apology.

What I saw was the beginning of the process of infiltration. A foreign game, being played in Spanish, by a mixed crew, in front of a native audience… Who knows what might happen next? A Peruvian team? A Peruvian League? Sounds ridiculous but who started the Romanians and the Italians playing rugby? Or the Argentinians and the Russians?

In the old days you knew how games spread. The empire-builders took with them cricket to Australia, field-hockey to India. I met a man once in the old French colony of Madascasgar, who said he had never been abroad in his life.

‘Except to the Isle of Reunion,’ he said.

‘What took you there?’

‘I was playing for the Madagascar boules team,’ he said. It might just as well have been the rugby team – that too was thriving there.

Later on it was the soldiers and occupying forces who took games places. Cricket reached Scotland because it was taught by English soldiers to Scottish prisoners-of-war after the 1745 uprising. I can testify, having been to school in Scotland, that cricket is still thought to be a slightly foreign game up there.

Much more recently than that, baseball became quite popular for a while in the north part of England after the Second World War, because the place was occupied by the United States Air Force who had lovely flat green places on which to play baseball. They were called aerodromes. Then the Yanks went home and the game flagged.

But now it’s the turn of the business person, since we no longer have empires and try not to occupy anywhere for too long. Without realising it, the businessman you send abroad is a sporting ambassador, or could be. I sometimes wonder if big businesses take their responsibilities seriously enough in this respect.

For instance, if an American company were sending people abroad to work in an individualistic, laid-back kind of country, much more suited to baseball than to the over-organised, slightly militaristic game of American football, it would be a tragedy if all its executives dispatched overseas turned out to be American Football fans.

Nor should they be left uneducated about the games they are likely to encounter. I was once standing in the Hachette bookshop of London’s Regent Street when an American businessman came in and explained to the assistant that he was stationed over here for the summer, and often found it difficult to keep up with his English Colleagues’ conversations.

‘So I think I need a book on cricket,’ he concluded. ‘Do you have any?’

‘Certainly not!’ said the woman, her eyes flashing. I took pity on the man as he retired, hurt, and explained to him that he had just come into a French bookshop, where to ask for a book on cricket was tantamount to a mortal insult. I redirected him towards Hatchards. But all that angst and injury would have been quite unnecessary if his American superiors had only taken the trouble to give him an intensive three-day course in cricket before he left.

Or, travelling in the opposite direction, how many Americans would understand cricket – or a rugby-playing Brit who talked of ‘playing a dead bat’ or ‘kicking this one into touch’?

It seems to me that sporting ability should be considered as much a qualification for an overseas posting as languages or ability to drive a hard bargain. It is not impossible that your very job might depend on your talent for kicking a ball into the net…

Example? Gladly. Some years back my uncle ran a hotel booking agency in London, where he got to know the people at the big hotels pretty well. He found out that there was a thriving afternoon football league (in Hyde Park) between them all.

It made sense. Who else except waiters has afternoons off every day? Chefs? So to fill in time they had inter-hotel games. As the hotels liked to see their team doing well, they would secretly buy them football kit, balls and so on. If that wasn’t enough, they would also buy players. Yes, seriously. If, for instance, they heard that the newly arrived Italian wine waiter at the Dorchester was also a pretty good footballer and nifty on the wing, they would slip along, whisper in his ear and press a couple of hundred in his hand. Hey presto, the wine waiter would leave the Dorchester and turn up in someone else’s dining room.

From there it’s but a short step to advertisements appearing in the international catering press, saying ‘Pastry chef needed for big London hotel: goalkeeper preferred…’ Or indeed to departing executives being closely selected for their sporting ability…. ‘We need a full-back/three-quarter for our Hong Kong office. Any good, old man? Oh and computer skills too, if possible…’

Nor should any rising business person go abroad these days without a working knowledge of the sports of his or her arrival point – Australian rules football, perhaps, or pelota in northern Spain – as a couple of knowledgeable remarks soon dropped will be worth their weight in gold.

I know it stood me in good stead, at least on home ground. When I worked at Punch, I was captain of the magazine’s cricket team, on the age-old principle that, if you can’t play the game properly but you cam organise transport and team selection, you can always become captain. Admittedly we only formed the team to play a village in Suffolk where cookery writer Delia Smith herself made the teas, and we lost every match we played, I think. But while I was still captain of the Punch team, my post on the magazine was safe. Shortly after the cricket team lapsed, I was released from the magazine’s staff.

I’m sure there’s a moral there.

Shield- The international magazine of the BP group
Winter 1991-92

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